Local task force busts heroin ring

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, foreground, offers his hand to FBI Special Agent John P. Selleck as Selleck shakes hands with East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III after a news conference Tuesday. Joining them, from left, are FBI Supervisory Special Agent Charles Delaughter and State Police Superintendent Col. Michael Edmonson.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, foreground, offers his hand to FBI Special Agent John P. Selleck as Selleck shakes hands with East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III after a news conference Tuesday. Joining them, from left, are FBI Supervisory Special Agent Charles Delaughter and State Police Superintendent Col. Michael Edmonson.

Law enforcement officials say they have dismantled a Baton Rouge heroin ring that had been using bogus businesses as a front for distributing highly addictive drugs to dozens of customers.

The Capital Area Gang Task Force wiretapped the group’s phones, recorded drug buys and carried out search warrants in a probe that authorities said was motivated in part by a spike in area heroin overdoses.

Six people were taken into custody over the weekend, five of whom face charges of drug racketeering and conspiracy to distribute heroin and Roxicodone.

“Make no mistake about it, the people that have been arrested, they are mid-level to high-level dealers of heroin,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “I expect more arrests and more search warrants.”

The alleged ringleader was identified as Christopher B. “Julio” Varnado, 31, 3821 Byrd Ave., a convicted felon accused of using businesses called Urban Imaging, Dope Man Entertainment and DME Janitorial to facilitate the criminal enterprise. Varnado also is suspected of “several acts of violence associated with drug transactions to include a home invasion and two shootings,” Moore said.

Varnado’s mother, Marlene D. Varnado, 51, 2042 Sobers St., also was booked with drug racketeering, among other counts, after she was heard during a wiretapped call warning her son about police surveillance, according to court filings.

The other suspects booked with racketeering and various drug counts were Dearcy Dirone Robertson, 24, 1701 Duane St., and Ronza Y. Robertson, 33, 16339 Hamilton Ave.

Kenneth Robertson, 27, was in custody in Rapides Parish and was expected to face the same charges upon being returned to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, Moore said.

A sixth suspect, Lakota Edwards, 19, 1013 N. 44th St., was booked Friday with distributing Schedule I drugs, though authorities said she had not been the focus of the wiretaps.

Christopher Varnado had been suspected of dealing heroin since around 2010, Moore said, a year in which the parish saw at least four people die from heroin overdoses.

Since the beginning of 2012, there have been at least nine heroin overdoses in the parish “ranging from young college co-eds to fathers of 18- and 19-year-olds,” said Shane Evans, an investigator with the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office.

Investigators have not linked the suspects to any of those deaths, but Moore said heroin purchased from Christopher Varnado had been tested and found to be “similar to heroin used in overdoses in the area.”

FBI agent Charles Delaughter said the loosening of sentencing laws for heroin-related offense has led to an increase in heroin use and distribution. While heroin had been perceived as a “hard drug” in the 1960s and 1970s and typically injected, Delaughter said, there are young people who now snort and smoke the drug.

“This has become a challenge for law enforcement, and we are here to step up and meet that,” he said.

The suspects in the heroin ring appeared to have worried about drawing attention from the police. In one wiretapped conversation, Ronza Robertson and Christopher Varnado could be heard discussing the importance of using “coded words” and the specter of wiretaps and informants, court records show.

Moore credited the FBI and said the bust would not have been possible without the agency’s resources and leadership in the multijurisdictional task force.

“The Baton Rouge Police Department, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the State Police worked tirelessly to monitor these wires and conduct intelligence and surveillance for nearly 60 days, 24 hours a day,” Moore said. “Their work paid off.”